The work of the Italian-American painter Edward Boccia is found in over 600 private collections as well as numerous important public collections including the St. Louis Art Museum; St. Louis University, University of Missouri, St. Louis; The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, Washington University, St. Louis; The Denver Art Museum; The Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City; The Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale and the National Gallery, Athens, Greece.
Edward E. Boccia (b. 1921, Newark, New Jersey d. − 2012, St. Louis, Missouri)
The painter, poet and draftsman, best known for his large-scale triptychs was a favorite of the renowned collector Morton May, St. Louis. Boccia’s early work was primarily naturalistic, and based on life studies. As a young man, he took classes at the Newark School of Fine and Industrial Arts. Upon graduation, the artist attended the Art Students League of New York and continued at the celebrated Pratt Institute in New York on scholarship, where he met Madeleine Wysong, his future wife.
In 1942, Boccia enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the 603rd Engineer Combat Battalion. This unit was a specialized camouflage division comprised of art school students whose primary duty was to fill fields with inflatable rubber artillery and tanks as a decoy for German planes. Boccia landed in Normandy one week after D-Day, then served in England, France, Germany and Luxembourg until the end of the war in 1945. Upon his return he married Madeleine, and earned a BA (1948) and an MA (1952) Columbia University, New York. Boccia’s connection to the modernist movements of Germany would begin early, while earning his MA, the artist served as Dean of the Columbus Art School, Ohio, where he also taught painting and drawing and was an integral force in dissemination of the Bauhaus methodology.
In 1951, Kenneth Hudson, the forward thinking Dean at the School of Fine Arts, Washington University, St. Louis, hired Boccia for the position of Assistant Dean. This happened shortly after the departure of Hudson’s other celebrated recruits Phillip Guston and Max Beckmann.
Hudson’s intuitive understanding of talent meant that Boccia was to become a tour de force of art and teaching, creating a genre of painting and visuality that built not only on the vibrant climate of patronage and exchange cultivated by the famous art collectors and philanthropists Lily and Joseph Pulitzer, Perry Rathbone, Director of the St. Louis Museum and Hudson but also on the legacy of the university’s stellar modernist faculty such as the prominent art historian H.W Janson who was instrumental in the development of a fine modernist collection.
The importance of patronage and taste must also be mentioned, in addition to the Pulitzers, another principal St. Louis art collector was “Buster” May, President, May Department Stores Company. May would serve as one of Boccia’s most important patrons, the magnate’s German Expressionist collection was considered one of the most significant in America and he purchased hundreds of Boccia’s paintings and drawings until his death in 1983. May wrote in 1966 to the Thomas Messer, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum:
“(Edward Boccia) has painted a number of triptychs which I consider by far his best work, and which not too many people have seen, as I own them all except an early one that I gave to the Denver Art Museum and another early one that I gave to St. Louis University. Mr. Boccia carries on in the tradition of Beckmann, but has his own allegorical themes, characters and style of painting.”
As well, in addition to his connection to the work of Beckmann through May’s collection, Boccia’s practice as it would evolve would demonstrate an entirely unusual affinity and unique transformation of modes from early to mid twentieth century muralism including the panoramic vision of mid-western great Thomas Hart Benton. This would be hauntingly fused with devices borrowed and reworked from Oskar Kokoschka, as well as the painterly practice of artists from the classical canon of European painting such as Titian and El Greco with whom Boccia shared an uncanny ability to create a sense of the supernatural within plastic space.
For some time, Boccia has escaped notice of the histories of mid to late century modern American art, in part because so much scholarship has focused on the accomplishments of the Abstract Expressionist movement and its central community in New York. Nevertheless, recent scholarship on regionalism and increasing recognition of the importance of considering figural work as an equally important force of American modernism has brought crucial issues to the forefront. Within this discussion, Boccia plays an important if not complex role. While he was a teacher of great dedication and influence, and met with success in terms of exhibitions, private and publication acquisitions, Boccia was in many ways quite reclusive, and dedicated much of his time to carefully planning his large-scale works.
Works such as Mystique Marriage (1979) are the result of multiple studies and a way of working that was at once meticulous and deeply experimental if not expressive. In this work and many others we see the confluence of a variety of influences, the thread
of neoclassical paradigms, expressionist brushwork, and black vagaries of color, as well as an attenuated and spectral surrealism. The panoramic grandeur of this work and many like it are reflective of Boccia’s place within American painting, meeting at the juncture of muralism, the heroic tendencies of Benton and muralism and the evocation of feeling through color as we see in various forms of modern abstraction and finally in the Expressionist language of intense coloration, black outline, distortion and disturbance.
The significance of Boccia’s practice must also be understood in the context of the distinctive intellectual and artistic climate of St. Louis, as demonstrated by the recent exhibitions and publications focusing on the vibrancy of university communities in post war America such as the project “Arts in Exile: Max Beckmann “ as well as Sabine Eckmann’s studies of the presence of German artists in America and the significance of their influence in her books H.W. Janson and the Legacy of Modern Art at Washington University in St. Louis (2002) and Hitler Exiles and American Visual Culture (2007).
In addition to the private and public collections listed, and a considerable exhibition history, Boccia also carried out several major commissions for secular and religious institutions including the First National Bank, St. Louis; St. Louis Old Cathedral; The Catholic Student (Newman) Center, Washington University, and the Brith Shalom Kneseth Israel Synagogue, St. Louis. The power of Boccia’s work earned him abundant honors, including a knighthood by the “Cavaliere Al Merito Della Repubblica” in Italy and the “Borso di Studio” from the Italian government. In 1990, Saint Louis University bestowed upon him membership in the Order of the Crown of King St. Louis IX.
RJH Berland, April 2015.